Let’s be honest about what we really want from Apple this week. We all want to know if Apple can still blow us away, or if they’re just a boring company now.
There are two schools of thought.
Explaining Apple Boredom
The first, which I’ve described in this space before, is that Apple only appears boring between announcements. Instead of, say, the Android world where there’s big news every week, the Apple world is a news vacuum until Apple does its big reveal. If this is true, then in a few days Apple will be the ass-kicking innovative, industry-leading company that we remember and that we want them to be.
The second school of thought is that, yes, Apple makes great products but can no longer excite. Now that Apple founder Steve Jobs is no longer there to impose his unique brand of visionary totalitarianism, Apple is slouching toward normalcy — a company that’s more concerned about shareholders than changing the world. If that’s the case, then it’s the end of a thrilling era in technology.
We’re going to find out soon enough.
Boring Doesn’t Mean Bad
When I talk about Apple being a “boring” company, I don’t mean a company that makes second-rate products. Obviously they don’t. And I don’t mean an unsuccessful company. These things are unrelated.
And, to be sure, the constant excitement in the Android space — the new information, new products and new capabilities — doesn’t mean there are more-exciting products on the Android side.
The radical fragmentation of the Android world means that when you look at five killer announcements, they’re almost always one announcement per product. In order to get those five new features, you have to buy five phones.
Look at just one tiny example: smartphone photography. The Samsung Galaxy S4 has a higher-rez camera than the iPhone. The HTC One (arguably) takes better pictures in low light than the iPhone. Nikon and Samsung make actual digital cameras that run Android. Sony has a new Android phone that takes pictures and videos underwater. Japan’s NTT DoCoMo ships an app that combines panoramas with video. And, of course, the biggest and most exciting news in Android cameras is Google Glass, which both itself nominally runs Android and is enhanced by connectivity to Android apps on a nearby phone.
This constant drumbeat of exciting news about innovations and new products in the Android camera space obscures the fact that if you really want the best camera-phone pictures and videos, you should buy a boring old iPhone 5. Each of those exciting announcements affects a different product.
There’s no connection between excitement and quality. So I’m not asking whether Apple makes bad products now. I’m asking: Can they still thrill, astonish and surprise? Or are those days over?
The Banality of Tim Cook
I suspect that part of the growing boredom over Apple comes from the fact that Apple CEO Tim Cook is one of the most boring people in the industry.
Worse, Cook tends to compensate for his dull, guarded speech with frustrating promises of things to come. There’s an old joke about IBM that has a woman saying: “My husband’s an IBM salesman. He sits on the edge of the bed and tells me how good it’s going to be when I finally get it.”
And that’s the pattern Tim Cook has fallen into. He’s always alluding to exciting, amazing things in development that he can’t talk about. This is a losing strategy. Nobody is excited when you raise their expectations. And when the future arrives, nobody is excited precisely because you already raised their expectations.
Comparing Cook with Jobs on the boredom scale is easy with two AllThingsD videos showing Jobs making the point that Apple just wants to make the best products with Cook at AllThingsD making the exact same, somewhat obvious point. But Jobs is electric. He draws you in and makes you lean forward. Cook is like watching paint dry. He puts you to sleep.
There’s not much Apple can do about this dimension of its increasingly boring reputation. Jobs is literally and perfectly irreplaceable.
But what Apple can do is surprise us. It won’t be easy.
Can Apple Still Surprise Us?
Everyone is expecting Apple to announce Monday a new iRadio service, a new, “flat” iOS 7, Mac OS X 10.9 and new laptops with Haswell chips.
Without any shocking, mind-blowing features we didn’t know about, none of these announcements will lift the boredom curse. In fact, most of us are already tired of hearing the rumors about these things.
Even the exciting things have been so long-rumored that the reality threatens to disappoint. The iWatch. The TV set. These would be nice. But even they may not save Apple from the boring label because they’ve been so heavily rumored and illustrated with fan concepts that at this point they’re mere expectations.
What everyone wants to know is: Can Apple still surprise and shock and thrill us? Or are they just another company that’s constantly telling that they can’t tell us about all the exciting things they’re working on and that they’ll ship some day.
Here’s the thing: We won’t know if Apple is now a boring company until the fall announcement. The reason is that they’re more likely to announce big-ticket, category-creating consumer products like iWatches and TVs closer to the holidays, not necessarily at a developers’ conference.
So, as always, a boring WWDC does not a boring Apple make. As Tim Cook is always telling us: We’ll have to wait and see.
Still, I’d love a killer surprise Monday.
Come on, Apple. Just one more thing.